Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

BALDARI | Napoli, AC Milan Are Poised for a Close Serie A Title Race; This Time They Mean Business

Nine games into the Italian Serie A season, early returns suggest the battle for the Scudetto will be fought between only two teams: Napoli and AC Milan. The team has created a sizable 7-point gap between itself and the next closest competitor, Inter Milan. Napoli and Milan are both unbeaten, and their performances on the ninth match day only strengthened their claims as contenders for a title. 

Napoli traveled to Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and tied a strong Roma side in the Derby del Sud — Derby of the South. The game was scrappy, physical and dramatic — both team’s managers were sent off for arguing with the referee — and both teams had ample opportunities to win the game. It was not pretty, but Napoli churned out yet another positive result, sending a clear message to the rest of the league that it is in it for the long haul.

Similarly, with less than 10 minutes to go in a 2-2 game away to Bologna, Milan scored twice to ensure an emphatic 4-2 victory. Milan’s teams of old would have been demoralized after squandering a lead, but by staying focused and finding a way to win, the Rossoneri showed it has championship-caliber resolve.

Skeptics will point to recent history as a reason to reluctantly trust Milan and Napoli to win the league, and they have a point. Napoli led the league for 21 of 38 match days of the 2017-18 campaign, but toward the final stretch, it was outpaced by Juventus, which ultimately toppled Napoli by four points. Milan, too, was in pole position throughout the first half of the 2020-21 season, but it lost steam in the second half and finished as a distant second, a full 12 points behind champions Internazionale.

This season, however, feels different. One of the reasons to trust Napoli and Milan is its most likely competitors have glaring deficiencies. 

Juventus — winners of nine straight Scudetti from 2011-12 to 2019-20 — have struggled to find reliable scoring options ever since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Manchester United, and the Bianconeri sit in sixth, 13 points behind the joint leaders. 

Inter, 7 points behind in third, is faring well under new coach Simone Inzaghi, but at crucial moments its offense misses the dynamism that striker Romelu Lukaku — who signed for Chelsea in August — provided during last season’s title-winning campaign.

And Roma looks much-improved from last season’s seventh-place finish, but it’s only a matter of time before new coach José Mourinho’s notoriously combustible personality begins to erode locker room morale. 

Yet to focus exclusively on other teams’ flaws is insulting to Napoli and Milan, because it obscures that both teams are legitimate contenders in their own right. 

Under new manager Luciano Spalletti, Napoli has a plethora of attacking options. It can play direct to its strong, pacey striker Victor Osimhen, who has already bagged five league goals, or it could opt for a more technical, possession-style approach through its diminutive wingers Lorenzo Insigne. 

However, Napoli is even more dominant on the defensive end of the pitch. Led by center back Kalidou Koulibaly, who has played every minute of every game, the Partenopei have conceded just three goals in nine games, making the team the stingiest defense in Italy.

Its counterparts to the north, Milan, are also looking to put missed opportunities behind itself. 

Despite losing several key players, including strikers Olivier Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, winger Ante Rebic and goalkeeper Mike Maignan, to injury at some point this season, Stefano Pioli’s team boasts the second-best offense and the second-best defense in the league. 

Although the 40-year-old Ibrahimovic commands much of the spotlight, Milan’s success has been fueled by young players’ improvement. Winger Rafael Leão and attacking midfielder Brahim Diaz, both 22, have formed a devastating partnership in the attacking third, notching seven goals and two assists combined. 

Perhaps the most indispensable player for Milan this season has been 21-year-old defensive midfielder Sandro Tonali. In his first season at Milan last season, Tonali — who, as a teenager, was dubbed the next Andrea Pirlo — lost his starting spot after a series of poor performances, and some critics started to wonder whether he would be another failed prospect. This season, though, Tonali has started all but one game and served as the metronome of Milan’s offense, completing 87% of his passes and tallying two goals and one assist.

As both teams look ahead to the rest of the season, they must remember the old adage: “It’s not about how you start; it’s about how you finish.” If neither team is able to sustain its early dominance, it will mean just another season of heartbreak for Milan and Napoli fans.

Christian Baldari is a sophomore in the College. Beware the Hype appears in print and online every other week.

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